Read Two Newly Discovered Sappho Poems in English for the First Time

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 31 2014 1:06 PM

Read Two Newly Discovered Sappho Poems in English for the First Time

104073429-large-bronze-statue-of-sappho-the-seventh-century-greek
A bronze statue representing Sappho.

Photo by LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Reading Sappho is radiant and frustrating, like being smiled upon by a goddess who is missing some teeth. Frustrating because her poems survive in quotations and fragments, snippets of often homoerotic desire coming down to us from seventh-century Greece. (Out of what is believed to be nine volumes of work, scholars have recovered only one complete Sappho lyric.) Radiant because, as the writer Kenneth Rexroth said of her, “Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement—in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.”

But while passion and a sense of elusiveness or loss seem important to our understanding of Sappho, they aren’t the full story. So it’s great news that two more of the poet’s verses have recently surfaced on a third-century scroll. As the Guardian reports, “the poems came to light when an anonymous private collector in London showed a piece of papyrus fragment to Dr Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at Oxford University.” Obbink has described the meter, dialect, and themes as “indubitably” hers. The more intact lyric contains biographical tidbits, mentioning Sappho’s brothers Charaxus and Larichus; the second is a moan of unrequited love.  Here they are, rendered in English by our crack ancient Greek expert, Thomas H. Buck, and then Sappho-ized by crack Sappho fan me.

Advertisement

Poem I

But always you babble that Charaxus is coming
With a full ship. These things, I suppose, Zeus knows
and all the other gods—but you
don’t need to understand them.

Just send me and instruct me
to pour out prayers to Queen Hera;
and beg that, steering his boat here
unharmed, Charaxus

finds us safe and sound. The rest,
let’s consign it all to the stars,
for fair winds suddenly appear
out of great gales.

Those whose fortune the Olympian King
turns back from sorrow—
They are happy
and shine with blessings.

And we, if Larichus ever lifts his head
to become a man,
from great heavy-heartedness we’d be
quick released.

Poem II (Fragment)

How could anyone not gorge always
Cyprian goddess, whomever you should love
and fervidly wish to call back to you?
You have …

Having summoned me idly you cut
longing …  

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
  Life
Outward
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 8:32 AM Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy—and a Mess. Can the Movies Fix It?
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 20 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.